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April 16, 2014 4:22 PM Abortion and Evolutionary Biology

By Ed Kilgore

Tom Edsall focuses today on the much-observed differences between the trajectory of public opinion on two religion-inflected hot-button cultural issues of recent years, same-sex marriage and abortion. The trend lines in favor of marriage equality are unmistakable—not only a rapid movement from “pro” to “anti” sentiment, but one accompanied by massive generational differences that appear to doom the “traditional marriage” position over time—and are largely absent on abortion, where, despite occasional efforts (especially by antichoicers) to spin small trends (usually based on subtle differences in how questions are asked) into something bigger, public opinion appears to have been fundamentally stable for decades.

Instead of probing around the edges of public opinion on abortion, Edsall instead leaps into conjecture that opposition to reproductive rights are based generally on evolutionary biology, and specifically on male efforts to restrict or otherwise control women’s naturally central role in reproduction. At National Review’s The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru legitimately complains that Edsall doesn’t deal with the consistent absence of gender differences in opinion on abortion, and also doesn’t explain why evolutionary biology doesn’t incline the same men who supposedly dictate abortion policy to insist on limiting the prevalence of lesbianism, another threat to the “natural order” of things.

Ponnuru, author of the antichoice tome Party of Death, likely regards his own position as being based on a combination of religious belief and science, which, as a Catholic, he considers mutually reinforcing. So he’s not terribly open to the idea that his desire to outlaw abortion is merely the product of an evolutionary impulse to control women, and has little or no rational content at all.

Now as it happens, I am, despite my recently acquired reputation as someone inclined to promiscuously accuse conservatives of racism, usually willing to take seriously the arguments—including religious arguments—people offer for taking the positions they choose to take on public policy topics. In fact, I’ve had quite a few arguments with fellow prochoicers who refuse to accept as genuine any rationale for opposing legalized abortion other than a generalized hostility to women or to women’s sexuality. But acknowledging that people can genuinely oppose abortion on religious grounds is not the same as denying that their religious views can be affected by secular attitudes towards women or sex or women having sex. The more I think about the very sudden enlistment of many millions of conservative evangelicals in the antichoice movement, mostly during the 1980s, the more it seems plain to me that it reflects a backlash to the liberalized sexual and gender trends that accompanied legalized abortion more than any mass self-education on embryology or thunderstruck reading of the random biblical quotations trotted out to justify Christian Right positions. But that’s very different from the claims cited by Edsall suggesting that the whole antifeminist cause is just a rearguard action dictated by male chromosomes.

Culture—including religion—matters a lot in politics. Wishing it away is a mistake. But the very good news for progressives is that culture—even religion—is more malleable than genetics. I sometimes despair of the abortion wars ever ending. But just as the antichoice (most recently becoming an anti-birth control) movement among conservative evangelicals seemed to come out of nowhere and sweep all before it, a contrary trend is entirely possible some day, and that’s also true among Catholics whose faith has built-in if slow and creaky mechanisms for changing doctrine. That seems a more optimistic scenario than waiting for men to rid themselves of a savage evolutionary hangover.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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